The ‘lost statute’ of 1427-8: how to solve a problem like Queen Katherine

In today’s blog Dr Simon Payling, senior research fellow for our Commons 1461-1504 project, returns to our recent blog theme of marriage. When Henry V died in 1422, making his infant son and namesake king, the romantic attachments of his widow, Katherine of Valois, became of chief parliamentary concern…

Amongst the many problems bequeathed to the English government by the premature death of Henry V and the accession of his baby son, Henry VI, in 1422, was that of his queen consort, Katherine of Valois: what was to be done in the probable event that she, not yet 21, wanted to remarry? Her remarriage into the family of one of England’s great lords would raise an obvious difficulty, threatening the delicate balance of interests on which rule through a minority council depended. The only great family who would favour such a match was the one who made it; in the eyes of the other lords, most notably, perhaps, the head of the that council, Henry V’s brother, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, it was far better that Katherine should remain unmarried. In these circumstances, her amorous connections, whether real or imagined, were a matter of concern to the council. There was a rumour in the mid-1420s that she intended to marry the young Edmund Beaufort (b.c.1406), count of Mortain, nephew of Cardinal Beaufort. Since the tension between the duke and the cardinal was one of the defining political features of the early years of the reign, it was natural that the duke, and others besides, should have feared such a match.

Funeral effigy of Queen Katherine

A ‘statute’ enacted in the Parliament of 1427-8 has been seen in this context. Its expressed purpose was, rather grandly, ‘the salvation of the honour of the most notable estate of the queens of England’. To that end it decreed that ‘no man of whatsoever estate or condition’ should marry such a queen ‘without the especial licence and assent of the King … being of the age of discretion’. He who had the temerity to do the contrary should forfeit all his lands and goods for the term of his life.

Historians have generally been happy to follow the contemporary source, ‘Giles’s Latin Chronicle’, in drawing an explicit connection between this statute and the prospect of a Beaufort marriage. A passage written soon after the queen’s death in January 1437 states that she had wanted to marry Edmund but, to prevent this union, Gloucester and other lords of the council had decreed that any successful suitor would suffer forfeiture and a traitor’s death. In the view of the author of this passage, the queen made her famous marriage to the Welsh esquire, Owen Tudor, who was perhaps a member of her household, because Owen had no goods to forfeit.

Yet there are some obvious interpretative problems here. The author either did not know of the precise terms of the ‘statute’ or else he misrepresented it, magnifying its penalties which did not include a traitor’s death. This implies that he was aware that the ‘statute’ itself provided a poor explanation for the apparent frustration of the Beaufort marriage. The penalty proposed, forfeiture of goods and lands for life only, was simply not sufficient to deter Beaufort. As a younger son, he had little of his own to lose and Katherine would have brought him wealth out of proportion to the loss of his own property. In short, if the ‘statute’ was designed to prevent the Beaufort marriage, it was singularly ill-designed for the purpose.

The statute was also ill-designed in a related sense. Its concluding part notes that the ‘disparagement’ of the queen’ was to be avoided because it would ‘blemish’ the King’s ‘estate and honour’. Yet the limited punishment proposed for any successful suitor, loss of property for life, was such as to encourage her to disparage herself, an invitation that the queen took in marrying the near-propertyless Tudor.

A ‘statute’ which brought about one of the very outcomes it was explicitly designed to avoid needs explanation, and that explanation probably lies in a drafting compromise.  The form in which the originating bill records the assent of the Lords suggests its nature. The spiritual peers gave only a conditional approval: they agreed only ‘as ferforthe as the said bille is not agains the lawe of God and of his cherche but stondeth therwithe and emporteth no dedly synne’. Their difficulty lay in the potential conflict between the Church’s doctrine on the freedom of marriage and the penalty imposed upon anyone who should have the courage to marry the queen. If that difficulty remained even when that penalty was a comparatively mild one, it is a fair speculation that they would have refused their consent if the penalty had been more severe. The probability is that the temporal peers had sought deterrent penalties, perhaps even the traitor’s death suggested by ‘Giles’s Latin Chronicle’, but that the resistance of the spiritual peers forced upon them the toothless measure that was eventually passed.

This parliamentary resistance may have extended beyond the spiritual peers. The originating bill records the assent only of the Lords, not that of the Commons, and this omission explains another mystery attaching to the ‘statute’, namely why it was not formally enrolled as one.  Although it was certainly (and erroneously) promulgated as such in the immediate aftermath of the Parliament, it was omitted when the statute roll was drawn up, probably because, for the royal judges who supervised the compilation of the roll, the lack of the Commons’ assent invalidated it as a statute. But here yet another mystery arises.  Not only is the ‘statute’ omitted from the statute roll, but the originating bill, once enrolled on the roll of the Parliament of 1427, is now no longer there. The relevant membrane has been excised. If this had happened in the immediate aftermath of the Parliament then the reason might lie in the contemporary controversy over the bill’s terms, but it occurred much later, sometime between the early-seventeenth century, when the enrolled bill appears in antiquarian copies of the roll, and 1767, when the parliament rolls were prepared for publication. Accidental loss is improbable, but the reason for its removal must remain as one of the several mysteries of this curious ‘statute’. 

SJP

Further reading

R.A. Griffiths, ‘Queen Katherine of Valois and a Missing Statute of the Realm’, in King and Country; England and Wales in the Fifteenth Century (London, 1991), pp.  103-13.

G.O. Sayles, ‘The Royal Marriages Act 1428’, in Scripta Diversa (London,1982), pp. 285-9.

Follow the research of our medieval project, Commons 1461-1504, via the Commons in the Wars of the Roses section of our blog.

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